I am on a quest to find a beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises. I'm not out here looking for a shitty copy.
Here are books I do not want:
As my search has drawn on I've gotten increasingly irrational about the copy of Sun that I'm going to buy. I can't just buy one online. I'm going to find one, I'm going to find one in a used bookstore, and I'm going to find it because Hemingway's ghost led me there.
I went on an odyssey of sorts to the East Village to scour used bookstores for my perfect copy of Sun which exists out there and I will find it. Yesterday ... was not that day.
But I did find some books that want to share with y'all.
The Strand - 828 Broadway
The Strand is an enormous bookstore, and the best and worst part about it is that there are racks of $1-5 books that line the block outside. I didn't have time to go through these yesterday, and also it would have taken five hours, but it kills me to think that my Sun might have been there. Anyway, I went straight inside to the Hemingways and was waylaid by something even better: An LGBTQIA book display on the main floor.
And that's where I found Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes.
Barnes was a writer and an artist active during the 1920s in New York and Paris. She had a lot of bad relationships with men and then swore off men, and then had a lot of bad relationships with women and swore off love altogether. She was known for, according to Andrea Barnet, "reams of sardonic poetry, dreamlike plays, short stories, and several edgy novels with lesbian themes."
Nightwood is one of those novels. It definitely sounds like it's going to be one of those classic "it's the 1920s so this lesbian is gonna fuck up her whole dang life" kind of stories, but also that was kind of like, Djuna Barnes' whole deal? Write what you know.
I'm very excited to get into this one, and look how beautiful the cover is. If some people (Ernest Hemingway) could manage to have covers that beautiful, then I would own a copy of The Sun Also Rises by now.
The Splendid Drunken Twenties - Selections from the Daybooks 1922-1930
I found this book when I went to the basement of The Strand, looking for Leslie Blume's Everybody Behaves Badly, a biography of Hemingway's early years. I found a different biography with that picture of Hemingway pointing a gun at the camera on the cover and I'm not about that life, but while I was wandering forlornly in the stacks I stumbled upon The Splendid Drunken Twenties.
Carl Van Vechten was a writer and photographer who wrote another book that is extremely fucking racist but that book is not this book, in that this book I would actually take on the subway, and have in my home. Van Vechten ran in the same circles as Djuna Barnes and was also That White Dude that was obsessed with Harlem and the black artists of the time (they didn't need his patronage at all). Van Vechten noted down his daily activities in his daybooks, which are printed here. It's full of stuff like "had lunch with George Gershwin" and "went to a party at A'lelia Walker's" and it's all the mundane daily shit that is perfect research fodder.
Alabaster Bookshop - 122 4th Avenue
This place is quite literally around the corner from The Strand, going towards Union Square, and I like it because well ... it's a tiny used bookstore. In one of the most hopping parts of New York. Next to New York's most famous and biggest used bookstore. It's the kind of perfect used bookstore that is packed up to the ceilings, with books tumbling all over the floor.
All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913 - 1930
This book is not an in-depth biography by any means, but rather a thrilling, breezy account of the lives of some of the amazing women of the time. It covers five of the women in their own chapters, with another chapter devoted to salons. But it opens with a "Cast of Characters" providing paragraph-long biographs of some twenty notable women, and I want to read books about every single one of them.
I actually found this book at Alabaster in September and checked it out at the NYPL in ebook form. I really enjoyed it, but I kept not finishing it before my hold was up so I gave in and decided to go back and buy it. This I explained in a sort of stammer to the kind and patient bookseller who will hopefully not remember me.
I love this book as a jumping-off point, and as a fucking inspirational text. It does a few things really well. The cast of characters got me pumped and made me want to go out and find someone who thinks women never did anything in history and then bash them over the head with this book. It's a litany of baller women who left their homes, made their own way in life, wrote revolutionary prose and poetry, made art, and were celebrated for it. Many, many of them were queer.
The book also includes wonderful tidbits about contemporary life that are so useful — things like what bars people hung out at. These are the kinds of details you can only get from reading biographies or contemporary writing, and I love it.
Where the book falls short: the author is white, and though there are chapters about the black women who were killing it at the time, I haven't read them yet because they're ... in the back of the book. The introduction mentions in a sanitized way that these black women artists were fighting both racism and sexism, and acknowledges that blues and jazz were the product of a "much-neglected" black America. But I would argue that "neglected" is nowhere near strong enough a word to describe the black America that was living under segregation, had seen the end of government-sanctioned slavery a mere fifty-odd years before, and was thriving in the decade that saw a major resurgence of the freaking KKK.
On one level I understand, because the whole tone of the book is about feeling very good about the accomplishments that women made. But it would be a disservice to women like Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter if we don't acknowledge the whole, awful truth of the odds that were against them. Both were lesbians, by the way.
I think All Night Party does tend to revel in the glamor of the '20s, and avoid some of its ugliness. That's mostly okay with me (mostly, see above) as long as we remember that ugliness on our own. Fredrick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday did that in '31 and it's a great read.
East Village Books and Records - 99 St. Mark's Pl.
Okay, I did not actually buy any books here because I felt fragile after accidentally spending so much money elsewhere — BUT. I had never been this bookstore before and I'll definitely go again. It's another hole in the wall, absolutely lined with books.
They also had shelves upon shelves of discount books in front and in a sort of shed in the back. I came so close to finding what I wanted here, y'all. But it just wasn't my day.
If anyone has other used bookstore recommendations please throw them my way! They're not easy to find, and apparently neither is a good-looking copy of The Sun Also Rises.